By Chantelle Benjamin
A new study has found a direct link between South African Police Service (SAPS) members’ willingness to report on law-breaking colleagues and the extent to which the guilty parties believe their colleagues will keep silent, as well as whether they believe action will be taken against the lawbreaker.
Considering that a previous study found that one in four police supervisors would “allow police bribery, theft from a crime scene, and theft from a wallet found”, it is not surprising that the 2010 to 2011 research shows one out of eight police officers would cover up internal corruption, the striking of a prisoner by a colleague, as well as kickbacks, false reports on drug possession and a hate crime.
This latest study on the SAPS echoes much of the research by Corruption Watch into metro police forces and the plight of whistleblowers in a system that has largely appeared to punish honest officers.
Corruption Watch also reported that the Public Service Commission (PSC) had raised concerns about the slow pace of investigations into corruption in the public sector.
Commissioner Selinah Nkosi said regarding the national police service, the PSC had received feedback on only 53% of cases reported to its national corruption helpline and only 45% from the Independent Police Initiative Directorate.
The PSC found that for both police and metro officers, bribery was most common – in the case of police it related to bribes to make dockets disappear and in the case of traffic officers it was taking bribes from motorists.
So severe is the problem that the PSC is considering issuing summonses against some departments to demand they institute investigations, she said.
While SAPS officers are more likely to report a serious infraction than a colleague accepting bribes or driving under the influence, there is still a strong “code of silence” among officers – a culture that frowns on whistleblowing.
This is according to Sanja Kutnjak Ivokovic and Adri Sauerman, two US-based researchers, who have released a study conducted between July 2010 and August 2011 for the Institute of Security Studies.
The researchers also conducted an earlier study on the SAPS in 2005 and when it came to reporting corruption, little had changed between the two periods.
Tolerating corruption within police ranks
The researchers point to the police service’s “questionable reaction to police misconduct and its apparent tolerance of corrupt activities within its ranks … exposed both in media reports and recent research”.
They also point to repeated punishment of individuals or organisations attempting to expose corruption within SAPS. This includes the alleged efforts by Advocate Nomgcobo Jiba, now acting national director of the National Prosecuting Authority, and Lawrence Mrwebi, now head of the Commercial Crime Unit, to protect former police commissioner Jackie Selebi and to sabotage the investigation.
Selebi is now serving 15 years for corruption and bribery.
Another case in point is the probe into now suspended crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli.
Major-General Mark Hankel, who wrote one of the reports on the Mdluli investigation, said an officer who handed information to the Hawks had to be placed under witness protection, after he mentioned to a colleague that he had cooperated with an investigation.
Traffic departments not much different
Metro traffic departments have shown similar intolerance towards whistleblowers, with the case of former Ekurhuleni police chief Robert McBride being a prime example.
McBride was convicted in April 2011 for drunken driving and defeating the ends of justice, following a car accident he had while drunk.
Ekurhuleni metro police officers Patrick Johnston, Stanley Segathevan and Ithumeleng Koko, who were at the accident scene, initially backed McBride, but subsequently gave "damning statements" to the police.
It was alleged that soon after they gave their statements, McBride and a number of Ekurhuleni metro police officers detained and intimidated Patrick Johnston at a petrol station, accusing him of driving a car with tinted windows which was against the law.
Segathevan joined Johnston and the two were arrested by their colleagues, but the Boksburg prosecutor allegedly declined to prosecute. Johnston and Segathevan obtained a court interdict to protect them from McBride and the Ekurhuleni Metro Police Department.
‘Loyalty among cops more important than sticking to the law’
The presence of a code of silence among these senior officials not only raises concerns about the integrity of the remaining management of the SAPS, but also, as the Institute of Security Studies’ Gareth Newham points out, “sends the inevitable message to the public and SAPS members alike that loyalty among police officials is more important than adherence to the country’s Constitution and its laws”.
The closure of the first national anti-corruption unit, established in 1996 and closed down during Selebi’s tenure, was cited by researchers as one of the examples of punishing successful corruption-busting organisations.
In addition to sending out the message that there was no benefit in exposing corruption, the researchers believe the SAPS has lacked a coordinated corruption strategy since the unit’s demise.
The official reason for the unit’s closure was that its functions allegedly clashed with the organised crime unit.
Also disbanded was the National Prosecuting Authority’s investigation unit, the Scorpions, which at the time had investigated Selebi and corruption allegations against President Jacob Zuma.
The researchers point out that no sooner had police commissioner Bheki Cele assured the public that corruption was being tackled, than the public protector issued a report accusing Cele of conduct that was “improper, unlawful and amounting to maladministration”. This was because Cele and his administration had not sought competitive bids in a lease deal involving headquarters in Durban and Pretoria.
The study’s research respondents comprised 43% constables, 8% sergeants, 21% warrant officers, 2% lieutenants, 16% captains and 8% of higher rank.
Little faith in colleagues
The researchers found that officers had little confidence in their colleagues reporting on another for an infraction, which would drive down the likelihood of an officer reporting a fellow officer’s crime to senior management.
For example, the study found that 20.5%, or one out of five officers, would not report an auto body shop kickback to a colleague, but 35.8% of the respondents believed their colleagues would keep quiet about the same crime.
The 2010 to 2011 study also showed that the belief an offending colleague would be disciplined motivated officers to report.
This is an encouraging development, as the 2005 study found the possibility of disciplinary action against a colleague was not a motivator.
The researchers said the strong action taken against Selebi and Cele could have been a reason for the change. It sent out a message to police that action would be taken against officers, no matter how senior they were.